Faculty Offices As Learning Spaces

At the 2018 UBC Okanagan Learning Conference, keynote speaker, Robert Talbert talked about the rights of students, based on the work of Crystal Kalinec-Craig. Student have

  • the right to be confused
  • the right to make mistakes and revise one’s thinking
  • the right to speak, listen, and be heard
  • the right to write, do, and represent what makes sense to you

Robert’s particular take on these rights is how the physical learning space can promote (but more often, restrict) these rights. Simple example: in classrooms where the seats have built-in tablets, left-handed people have to sit in special lefty-seats, usually along an aisle or against the wall. They can’t sit with their peers and can’t choose to be inconspicuous in the middle of a big block of seats.

Robert gave another example that caught a lot of conference attendees’ attention: despite a course instructor’s pleas to their student to come to office hours, faculty offices are rarely welcoming spaces for students. If a student can overcome the apprehension and anxiety of the clutter and the feeling like they’re invading their instructor’s living room, the typical office does not permit active, collaborative learning. The instructor sits in a big chair on one side of a barrier — their big ol’ desk — and talks at the student sitting on the other side of the desk in a crappy chair.

He teased us with some new office designs and furniture that create a welcoming, collaborative learning space. I mean, who wouldn’t want an office like this, right?

Steelcase “Faculty Offices of the Future”

A number of UBC Okanagan faculty spoke to me after the conference, wondering how they could renovate their offices. All it would take, it seems, is a few $1000. But who has that kind of money to spare – certainly not the instructors, themselves.

I’m on an learning spaces advisory committee and I pitched an idea: a competitive grant program where each year, say, 5 faculty members could receive up to $3000 to renovate their office. Let’s call it a FOALS grant:

FOALS (Faculty Offices As Learning Spaces). Kinda’ cute, huh, even if @gdumanoir doesn’t like my horsey 😉

The advisory committee said, sure, take it to Deans’ Council and see what they say. Whew, passed the first hurdle. Or keeping with the horsey theme, cleared the first jump.

Fast forward 2 weeks.

The meeting went something like this:

Ha ha ha ha! Nope.

No, seriously, this is a great group of people to work with and they give me some good feedback and legit reasons why they were laughing:

  • It’s hard to justify an expense that doesn’t have a clear connection to the core teaching and learning mission of the university.
  • This would introduce even more inequity into an culture that’s steeped in seniority, status, who has a window, and whose office is next to the washroom.
  • What happens when someone move offices? Is the new furniture theirs to move? Does it stay with the room (which is probably would if the reno includes big whiteboards.)

So, while FOALS won’t be coming to UBC Okanagan any time soon, it sparked some ideas that might:

  • Deans could bring this idea into conversations with new faculty members when they’re talking about start up funding and opportunities.
  • focus on shared spaces like atriums, foyers, open spaces at the ends of hallways: if those spaces had whiteboards, work surfaces, wall-mounted monitors the instructor and students to jack into, comfortable task seating,… course instructors could hold “office” hours there with groups of students
  • there might be some smaller, affordable items faculty could purchase on their own – if only someone would source good stuff at good prices. (Psst – I think I’ve got a line on Steelcase’s awesome verb whiteboards.)

Let’s see where it goes from here!

Centers for Teaching professional development

My Centre for Teaching and Learning at UBC Okanagan “supports and promotes teaching and learning excellence, innovation and scholarship.” Many of our programs are offered as a form of professional development for course instructors.

Clarifying misconceptions about misconceptions in Science of Learning by Deans for Impact (Photo: Peter Newbury)
Clarifying misconceptions about misconceptions in The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

After some conversations with senior people here in my Centre – thanks JP and JH – I’ve realized my Centre staff should have professional development opportunities, too. We fill a special niche: providing teaching and learning support to course instructors (which is one step removed from providing teaching and learning support to students) and we should continue to learn how to do it well. So, I added a second hour to our monthly team meetings: a “lunch-n-learn” for my Centre staff.

This month’s session went really well and I want to share it with the Center for Teaching community in case you’re looking for ideas.

I asked everyone to read The Science of Learning by Deans for Impact. It’s a great report that presents 6 key questions:

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  5. What motivates students to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

The report answers those questions based on current research and provides practical implications, that is, how it can be used in the classroom. The document is well researched and referenced, providing a rich source of the evidence in “evidence-based teaching.”

Two of the activities I facilitated with my team worked really well and led to very rich discussions:

Dig into the misconceptions

The last key question in the report lists common misconceptions about how student think and learn:

  • Students do not have different “learning styles.”
  • Humans do not use only 10% of their brains.
  • People are not preferentially “right-brained” or “left-brained” in the use of their brains.
  • Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.
  • Cognitive development does not progress via a fixed progression of age-related stages.

Here’s the thing: it’s not clear from the report if these are the misconceptions or these are statements that debunk the misconceptions. (It’s the latter, it turns out – correct, students do not have different learning styles.) So I asked my colleagues to

  1. identify and explain the misconception that the statement debunks, and
  2. talk about the risks of an instructor basing decisions on the misconception

This was good because we clarified the misconceptions about the misconceptions. We had a long conversation about the statement, “Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.” The discussion about risk was important, too, because it gave my colleagues ammunition for the conversation with course instructors about why they need to update their conceptions.

Course instructors are our students

After we’d looked over the six key questions and what course instructors can do in their classrooms to help their students learn, I asked everyone to take one step “up” and reconsider the questions, solutions, and implication in OUR niche where course instructors are our students.

For example, when we want to teach them about a new concept, like peer instruction with clickers, we need to remember course instructors, “learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know.” In other words, our clients are not empty vessels, waiting to be filled with our teaching and learning knowledge. And if we teach them by simply dumping knowledge at them, they will not learn it.

It is really interesting and challenging to reconsider each key question and solution and to imagine the implications for how we need to support our course instructors.

If you try one of these activities in your Center, I hope you’ll come back and leave a comment about how it went, so the next Center director can benefit from all our experiences.